Jewish Education in Early Childhood

The long-term value of early exposure to all things Jewish

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Parents want the best for their children right from the start. Even while we are still pregnant, we are already seeking out the best pediatrician, the best hospital for our delivery, and the best items for our baby registry. At some point along the parenthood journey, however, Jewish parents will also explore the best Jewish aspects of childbirth and parenting.

Shalom Baby

Why start so early in a child’s life with Jewish involvement? Why not wait until religious school or summer camp, when your children are older and you can discuss their experiences with them?
early jewish education
Research shows the importance of early childhood experiences--from birth through 5 years--on a child’s future growth and development. It is during these early years that a child’s brain establishes lifelong neural pathways that set the course for future abilities and interests. For example, children who are exposed to a foreign language as infants and then not again until years afterwards have an affinity for that language. It stands to reason, then, that early Jewish experiences will profoundly affect a person’s later attitude towards and interest in Judaism.

According to Mark I. Rosen, Ph.D. of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, "Exposure to Judaism at home and in childcare can help children to grow up with a strong Jewish identity."

He and his colleagues have identified many Jewish communities across the country that are engaging in a wide range of endeavors targeted at these young families, and they are making recommendations to Jewish leaders about the importance of this work towards ensuring the future vibrancy of North American Jewry.

There are four primary types of programs identified by the researchers:

1. Prenatal education programs
2. Shalom Baby gift basket programs
3. Developmental and parenting education programs
4. JCC parenting centers

These programs and the peers groups that parents develop through them heavily influence the decisions families make about preschool and further Jewish education, as well as the importance of Judaism in home life.

So how do you get involved at home and in your community with a baby or toddler, or even as an expectant parent?

Communal

Pre-baby education. Check with local JCC, Jewish Family Services or area synagogues to see if they are offering any Jewish childbirth education programming.

Jewish Communal Welcome Packets. Find out if any of these or other Jewish institutions are offering "Shalom Baby" or other welcoming gifts/information packets for you and your new baby.

Childcare under Jewish auspices. If childcare is needed, again, check with the JCC and area synagogues to see if any of them offer infant care. It is also possible that you may find stand-alone daycare centers or home-daycare providers who provide a Jewish flavor to their services. If  you are thinking about an au-pair, why not consider one from Israel?

Mommy & Me in a Jewish context. When seeking out parent-child classes, parenting advice, family activities, etc., seek these programs and services under Jewish auspices. Many Jewish communities have this information online through www.planitjewish.com or their local federation’s website, which may host the community calendar.

Time for yourself. Parents need to learn, too--both about how to be Jewish parents and about Judaism on an adult level. Check with your local Jewish organizations to see if they have parent support programs like the Parent Resource Place in Baltimore run through Jewish Family Services. The international Melton program has started a track called PEP—Parent Education Program. Many communities run the Me’ah program for adult Jewish learners. Both Melton and Me’ah are great opportunities for adult Jewish Education.

At Home

Judaica. When family and friends ask what gifts they can get you and your new baby , ask some of them for Jewish-themed gifts--your child’s first kiddush cup, a mezuzah for the nursery, or Jewish children’s art, books and music. If they are not purchased for you as gifts, buy these things yourself.
 
A great way to start or expand your family’s Jewish library is through the "PJ Library" program lauched by the Grinspoon Foundation in Western Massachusetts. The PJ Library sends children under the age of 5 Jewish-content books and music on a monthly basis. Check to see if your community is offering the program. If they aren’t now, chances are they will be soon, and you can look at the book selections as good selections for you to choose on your own as well.

Jewish Routines. Any good parenting book will tell you that children  need routines. They provide a necessary measure of predictability, safety and stability. Bedtime routines can include saying the Shema (traditional Jewish prayer recited upon rising and retiring) prayer with even the smallest children. You will be amazed at how soon they will be mimicking you, covering their eyes with their hand and repeating the words. There are morning rituals as well. The Union for Reform Judaism has wonderful pamphlets on both morning and evening rituals you can use with young children.

The Jewish calendar, with the weekly occurrence of Shabbat and the many annual holidays, provides another level of routine. Find meaningful ways to celebrate these special days. You can download an interactive Jewish calendar for your computer or PDA to keep track of these holidays, since they follow the Hebrew calendar which varies year to year from our civil calendar.

Sensual Jewish Experiences. Make meaningful Jewish memories through the senses. Allow your young children to make, smell and taste traditional Jewish foods. Let them see the glow of the Shabbat and Chanukah candles. Let them hear the sound of the shofar and Jewish music.

Formal Jewish Education

When your children have reached preschool age--at least 2 years old--consider Jewish preschool options as a good entrée into formal Jewish education for your child. Jewish preschools are a wonderful option to lay the foundation for a lifelong involvement in Jewish education.

Whatever the philosophy of the program, Jewish preschool is the first place where your child, along with a group of his or her peers, will be exposed to Shabbat celebrations, chapel time, the observance of different Jewish holidays, bible stories, Hebrew, Jewish music and foods and so much more of what Judaism has to offer--all geared at the perfect level for a young child. Your child will experience Judaism with all of their senses in a safe and nurturing environment designed with their needs and abilities in mind. Most communities with a Jewish Community Center have a preschool associated with it, as do many synagogues.
 
If your family doesn’t already belong to a JCC or a synagogue you want to use for preschool, check with your friends and see where they are sending their children to preschool and gauge their satisfaction. Call your community’s central bureau of Jewish education and speak with the early childhood education specialist. This professional works with all the Jewish preschools in your community, and can help you match up your interests with the right programs. Finally, many preschools now offer parent-child classes for children between 12-24 months, so you can sample a variety of settings before settling on a final decision.

Right from the Start

The birth of a child is a life-altering, emotional, awe-inspiring moment in one’s life. Raising children is a rewarding, sometimes daunting, often challenging and never dull journey. Incorporating Judaism into your family’s life right from the start--or at any point along your journey--will no doubt enhance the experience. And remember: it’s never too early or too late to start!

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Caron Blau Rothstein

Caron Blau Rothstein is the former Director of Special Projects at the Center for Jewish Education in Baltimore, MD. She is currently developing programming for Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, OR.